Every once and awhile I need a break from writing about or making games. It just gets to be too much. So today I’m going to talk about Hayao Miyazaki’s latest, and potentially last, film The Wind Rises which I had a chance to see last night.
Like most people of my generation who are fans of animation, Hayao Miyazaki’s work was incredibly important to me. In fact, Princess Mononoke (which had just appeared in a select few theaters at the time) was how I convinced my extremely un-artistic parents to let me go to art school. Miyazaki has taught so many people that animation and cartoons can be used to tell important stories, personal stories, transcendent stories.
But I don’t want to canonize Miyazaki. I know I spend a lot of time on this blog talking about the death of the author, and how the audience has the ultimate power to change the meaning and value of work. I believe that is true, but I also believe that it is possible to “kill” the author while still acknowledging and, if appropriate, celebrating them. Miyazaki is a person, and I feel that all to often people reduce him to a symbol. Look at the recent, hilariously inappropriate Zen Pencils “anti-criticism” comic which stars a caricature of Miyazaki as a smiling, fatherly art-god, who pilots giant robots to wage war against internet meanness and wants to make the world safe for pop-culture. Miyazaki isn’t the savior of pop-culture, and he isn’t an abstract ideal of pure artistry. Miyazaki is cantankerous, obsessive, brilliant, radical, conservative, pacifist, critical, a difficult father, an impossible boss, openly hostile to what he doesn’t like or understand, deeply moved by what he does, and human. I can’t help but see this movie in the context of his other work and the person he portrays himself as, even as I tear into the work and pull out my own meaning and value.
The Wind Rises is something of a “Miyazaki’s greatest hits” movie, focusing on every kind of image that made him so famous. There are gorgeous nature scenes, with wind rustling through the grass, beautiful countryside backgrounds and lingering shots of rain striking against leaves. There are planes drawn in exquisite detail, with focus on how the smallest details work and bursting forth with an obvious affection and awe for the engineering and design of these machines. There are dizzying flight scenes, each showing a different relationship with movement and with the sky. There are trains and boats and detailed crowd shots whose mere conception would make other animators cry. There are small details, subtle acting, and unique expressions and movements. There is, of course, the Nausicaa-esque young woman Miyazaki is so fond of animating, as well as a soft-spoken and driven designer-hero. There is a scene involving an earthquake that is breathtakingly powerful and will no doubt become the go-to “quake scene” animators show their students from here on out. All in all, The Wind Rises could easily go down as Miyazaki’s most gorgeous movie.
But it is also his most problematic.
Jiro Horikoshi has a dream of designing airplanes. His poor eyesight means he can never be a pilot, but still he dreams of conquering the sky. As a young boy he envisions meeting Giovanni Caproni, a flamboyant Italian aeronautical engineer who insists that Jiro is in fact visiting his own dream. The two talk about their dreams and the beauty of planes, and Jiro is inspired to follow his dream no matter what. As a young man, Jiro enters the industry just as Japan gears up for expansion and war. While his countryfolk all dwell on advancing Japan either through military power or technological and cultural achievement, Jiro only thinks of his planes and of the beauty of design in nature. Jiro is eventually given the job of designing the new bombers that the Japanese Navy will deploy. He doesn’t even know who will be bombed (“Russia? America, probably”) but he dives into the project none-the-less.
As World War II looms ever closer, Jiro finally begins to notice the world around him. He visits Germany to learn about metal planes, and sees the secret police chasing and arresting dissidents. Back home in Japan, he meets a German tourist who openly criticizes Hitler as well as Japan’s own colonialist activities in China, Korea and the South Pacific. How will Jiro reconcile his love of planes and design with the fact that his love is inevitably going to be co-opted as a tool for war and death?
As it turns out, he reconciles this very easily.
“Would you rather live in a world with pyramids or without pyramids?” the dream Gabroni asks Jiro. The meaning of this question is clear to the audience. The pyramids, an ancient wonder of engineering and design that inspires us still today, were created from the blood and oppression of others. Countless slaves died in their construction. For those unaware, the actual planes designed by the real Jiro Horikoshi were built by forced laborers conscripted from China and Korea. This should also be something that American viewers think about, as our own country and our own wondrous cultural feats were built on some of the vilest genocide and oppression in history. Is the creation of any art worth the oppression and lost lives? The Wind Rises offers the answer as a confidently uncritical “yes.”
Jiro’s dream leads to death, as that is what the military always intended it to be used for. The final scene shows Jiro dreaming of the wrecked planes and the lost pilots who fly off into the heavens with the other fallen soldiers. People died from his planes, and people died from the war his planes helped continue. His own wife arguably dies as a result of his obsessive work and selfish desires. But still, life goes on. Jiro is absolved of any responsibility by Gabroni and his wife’s passing soul. The designer and the artist can not be blamed for how their work is used, even when they set out specifically to create work that will be used in this way. Jiro is not alone in his dream. There were designers, artists, scientists and dreamers on every side who no doubt considered themselves removed from the war and from the horrors done in their country’s name. But this movie asks us not to begrudge them their dream or judge them for the result. Jiro is an idealistic hero, removed from the world of war and politics, and we should instead judge the rest of the world for misusing his dream. Even then, the deaths of civilians and soldiers on both sides are acknowledged with barely a shrug, and the horrors of oppression and colonialism and forgotten as soon as they are brought up.
This is a shocking message for a Miyazaki movie. Princess Mononoke features a hero who refuses to fight for any side, and insists that peace be made between humanity and nature to prevent a war that will tear both apart. Howls’ Moving Castle shows the wizards who choose to serve the government and military reduced to unthinking monsters, their talents turned against them and used to ravage the world. The overtly evil Witch of the Wastes is more noble than these military wizards because she at least refuses to let her magic be used to wage war. Porco Rosso, perhaps the most obviously comparable film to The Wind Rises, features the same lost graveyard of pilots endlessly circling the sky. But while Jiro sees redemption in this sight, Marco suffers such horror at the realization of what he has done that he gives up on his own humanity and becomes a pig. Marco never forgives himself for his own culpability in war.
The Wind Rises feels like the work of an old man retiring and scared of the future. While a young Miyazaki gave us a pacifist heroine in the Nausicaa movie, and a radical iconoclast heroine who refuses to accept hypocrisy in the Nausicaa manga, the retiring Miyazaki gives us a pragmatic hero willing to accept war as inevitable, even necessary. While a middle aged Miyazaki gave us a hero who would rather give up his humanity than deceive himself in Porco Rosso, and a hero who is willing to sacrifice himself for the sake of the world in Princess Mononoke, the retiring Miyazaki gives us a hero willing to blind himself to the world and willing to sacrifice countless unseen lives and the well being of his own wife to achieve his goals. Whisper of the Heart and Spirited Away gave us heroines only willing to be equal partners in relationships, who refused to let their loves carry them alone and refused to give up on their own dreams and abilities. The Wind Rises gives us a woman willing to give up her own art and even give up her own life rather than risk disrupting the inspiration and work of her genius love. The retiring Miyazaki almost desperately tries to convince us that art can be removed from context, and that the now context-free work of an artist can justify any outcome. The Miyazaki we grew up with looked to the future to show us how nature and technology could work in hand in hand if we would let it, and he looked to the past to show us what lessons could be learned. Now we have a movie that looks only to the past out of nostalgia for a lost, simpler age. A movie that seems scared of the future, and unsure how to balance the disparate desires of technology, humanity and nature. It feels, disappointingly, like the work of an old man afraid of his own legacy and frightened by the possibility that his life may not have been perfect. Miyazaki is an artist who historically was never afraid to be bold or challenging, and while on technical terms this may be his best work yet, thematically it feels beneath him.
We actually cannot choose to live in a world without pyramids. That choice was made long before we were born. We also have no choice in how we are remembered after we are gone. But all of us have the choice as to how we create and how we follow our dreams in this world today. Whether we refuse to allow ourselves to be complicit in current and future suffering or whether we close our eyes to the world around us. The belief that pyramids and planes can only be made by slaves and by the suffering of others benefits only those willing to inflict that suffering. Sacrificing ideals for a dream does not make one a hero, and it never actually leads you to that dream. A hero is one who is willing to fight and change the world to make room for their dream, and that is never as easy. Especially now at a time when mere survival for artists, designers and dreamers is uncertain, we should be celebrating those willing to attempt that fight, and supporting those who fail. To celebrate the weapon-maker because you admire the design of the weapon, even as you condemn the weapon itself, does little to help those today fighting to realize their dreams in the face of uncertainty and oppression.